Pension debt will ‘eat everything in its path’

California’s teacher “pension debt will eat everything in its path,” writes Chad Aldeman on Education Next.

California discovered a $2.4 billion budget surplus from what it projected in January, but that money won’t be going to any new, exciting program. It won’t support the state’s transition to new academic standards. It won’t be going to expand kindergarten or offer pre-k to 4-year-olds. Governor Jerry Brown has other plans. He wants the money to go toward paying down the state’s debt, especially the $74 billion unfunded liability from the state’s teacher pension plan (CalSTRS).

In order to pay off the full debt over 30 years, Brown’s plan calls for teachers to pay more, school districts to pay much more and the state to pay more. “By 2021, nearly 40 percent of California teachers’ total compensation will go toward paying down the pension plan’s liabilities.”

Yet, due to high mobility, only one in five young teachers will receive a full pension, according to a Bellwether analysis. Half won’t qualify for a minimal pension benefit.

Illinois’ early retirement incentives didn’t lower student achievement, even though experienced retirees were replaced by less-experienced or brand-new teachers, concludes another study in Education Next. The state’s two-year program seems to have raised test scores in reading with the strongest positive effects in “schools that serve a more disadvantaged student population.”

It’s possible less-effective, less-energetic teachers were the most likely to take advantage of the early retirement offer, researchers speculated.

The state’s two-year program saved school districts $550.5 million in salaries, but the state paid all of that and more in pensions. However, a well-designed program could save money for taxpayers too, researchers concluded.

Are urban charters too black?

Critics complain that charter schools “pay more attention to student achievement than to racial diversity,” reports Heidi Hall for USA Today.

Urban charters often are located in high-poverty, high-minority neighborhoods with low-performing district schools. They attract few or no white or middle-class students. Black parents are the most likely to choose charters, which produce learning gains for disadvantaged students compared to district alternatives, CREDO studies report.

Urban charter students also are more likely to earn a high school diploma and enroll in college. Many parents choose charters with strict discipline policies because they’re safer.

Critics say there’s no such as thing as “separate and better.”

Cheryl Brown Henderson, the daughter of Brown v. Board of Education plaintiff Oliver Brown, disagrees. A former school guidance counselor, she runs a foundation devoted to studying the Brown case’s impact and improving education access for minorities.

Henderson said she doesn’t believe diversity should be a big concern for charter schools, and she questions whether traditional public schools ever truly reflected racial balance despite busing, rezoning, magnet programs and other efforts.

“It’s awfully arrogant for us to point fingers at people trying to ensure a world-class education access is afforded to all of our children,” she said.

Some new charter schools are trying to attract a mix of students, said Neerav Kingsland, CEO of New Schools for New Orleans.  Bricolage Academy, a New Orleans charter is recruiting students of varying socioeconomic backgrounds. But the school district is 90 percent African-American, so racial balance is unlikely.

“Activists” complain that too many failing public schools in black neighborhoods are being closed and replaced with charter schools,” writes Juan Williams.

Thurgood Marshall, the lawyer who won the Brown case and later became a Supreme Court justice, told me as I was writing his biography that the case was not really about having black and white children sitting next to each other. Its true purpose was to make sure that predominantly white and segregationist school officials would put maximum resources into giving every child, black or white, a chance to get a good education.

 

“The flight to charter schools conforms with the Brown ruling’s central premise: that students should be able to attend the best public schools without regard to income or race,” argues Williams.

Why Asian (Jewish, Cuban, etc.) kids excel

A cultural superiority complex, insecurity and impulse control  help people from some cultures excel in school and business, write “Tiger Mom” Amy Chua and husband Jed Rubenfeld in The Triple Package. Their triple-threat cultures are: Cubans, East Asians, Indians, Jews, Lebanese, Mormons, Nigerians and Persians.

People in these groups believe their culture is exceptional, but as individuals they need to prove themselves, write Chua and Rubenfeld. These cultures cultivate self-discipline and impulse control.

The book has been criticized for ignoring the immigrant effect: Nigerians, Indians, Lebanese and Persians who make it to the U.S. tend to be educated, ambitious, relatively successful people. They’re so smart they figured out how to get here. Miami’s pre-Mariel Cubans also were more middle-class than average.

All this reminds me of Joel Kotkin’s 1994 book, Tribes: How Race, Religion and Identity Determine Success in the New Global Economy.

A new study looks at high-achieving children of low-income Chinese and Vietnamese immigrants who “lack middle-class cultural capital.” These families “use ethnicity as a resource to construct and support a strict ‘success frame’ that helps the poor and working class override their disadvantages.”

Chinese immigrant parents often are educated and speak English, said one of  the study’s authors, UC-Irvine sociologist Jennifer Lee. However, Vietnamese immigrants’ children do well in school and careers even when their parents have little education or money.

That’s where expectations comes in – or what the paper calls, quoting its interview subjects, the understanding that “A is average and B is an Asian fail.” 

Parents search for the best schools and lobby for their children to be placed in advanced classes. If they can’t afford tutoring, they turn to ethnic organizations and churches to provide a free or low-cost “shadow education.”

If success is measured by doing better than the previous generation, then Mexican-Americans are the most successful, Lee writes in Time.

Study: Achievement doesn’t rise with spending

There’s no connection between education spending and student outcomes, according to State Education Trends over the past 40 years, an analysis by Cato’s Andrew Coulson.

cato institute study on school spending1

Spending has nearly tripled in inflation-adjusted dollars and the number of school employees has almost doubled since 1970. However, reading, math and science scores have been “stagnant” for 17-year-olds, writes Coulson. “In virtually every other field, productivity has risen over this period thanks to the adoption of countless technological advances — advances that, in many cases, would seem ideally suited to facilitating learning.”

Charter co-location: A phantom threat

Charter co-location — having a charter school share a building with a district-run school — is a “phantom threat,” argues Marcus Winters in a New York Daily News commentary. Co-locations don’t affect test scores for students in traditional public schools, his research shows. 

“Rent-free co-locations have helped charter schools expand rapidly in New York City,” despite receiving no state funding for facilities, Winters writes.

More than half of New York City’s traditional public schools share space with other schools and with community organization, he notes. Only charter co-location is controversial.

Complaints range from fairly small issues such as insufficient closet space or changes to the building’s lunch schedule to more serious issues that could impair a school’s effectiveness, such as classroom overcrowding and the loss of classroom space used for small-group instruction and teacher preparation.

Looking at test scores over five years, co-locations — whether with other traditional public schools or with charter schools — do not show “any discernible impact on student achievement.”

New York City charter students outperform similar students in traditional public schools, two studies have found. A 2013 CREDO study found gains for urban charter students in New York City and elsewhere.

LA charters raise math, reading scores

Los Angeles charter students gain 50 more days of learning in reading and 79 days in math than similar students in district schools, concludes a study by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO). Low-income Hispanic students did even better, gaining 58 additional days of learning in reading and 115 more days in math.

Citywide, 48 percent of charter schools have significantly larger learning gains in reading, while 44 percent do so in math, the 2014 CREDO study found. Thirteen percent of Los Angeles charter schools have results that are significantly worse than their district school peers in reading and 22 percent perform worse in math.

Urban charters serving low-income students show the strongest gains in recent research.

Do bad apples spoil the learning?

 African Americans and students with disabilities are suspended at “hugely disproportionate rates,” according to a report by a group called the Discipline Disparities Research-to-Practice Collaborative. 

Higher rates of misbehavior don’t explain higher suspension rates, said Russell J. Skiba, a professor at Indiana University and director of the collaborative. He pointed to other factors such as classroom management, diversity of teaching staff, administrative processes, characteristics of student enrollment and school climate.

Suspending disruptive students doesn’t help their classmates, the report argues.

One oft-repeated justification for frequent suspensions is that schools must be able to remove the “bad” students so that “good” students can learn. . . .  when schools serving similar populations were compared across the state of Indiana, and poverty was controlled for, those schools with relatively low suspension rates had higher, not lower test scores

Troubled kids  hurt the whole class responds Education Next, citing two recent studies.

Domino Effect found children from “troubled families, as measured by family domestic violence,” are much more likely misbehave and be suspended.

We find also that an increase in the number of children from troubled families reduces peer student math and reading test scores and increases peer disciplinary infractions and suspensions… in many cases, a single disruptive student can indeed influence the academic progress made by an entire classroom of students.

Philadelphia study by Penn researchers found that “in schools with a high concentration of children with ‘risk factors,’ the academic performance of all children – not just those with disadvantages – was negatively affected.”

The collaborative would respond that suspension isn’t the only way to prevent troubled kids from disrupting their classes.  Researchers recommend “some restorative justice programs and prevention programs that call for more student-teacher engagement.”

Fordham’s Mike Petrilli is “very nervous” about making it harder to discipline students.  “This push to make it harder to suspend students is going to have a chilling effect on teaching and learning.”

Why dads matter

Dad isn’t dispensable, write Lois M. Collins and Marjorie Cortez in The Atlantic. A third of American children are growing up without their biological father. It’s not just a benign “alternative family.” It’s bad for kids.

More than half of babies of mothers under 30 are born to unmarried parents, they write. Forty percent of married couples divorce.

Father-absent families are four times more likely to be poor, the Census reports.

When couples split, Dad usually moves out. Often a new man comes in. And then leaves. Children in such homes experience an average of more than five “partnership transitions,” one study found.

Most children deal with “family churn” and end up OK, said Andrew J. Cherlin, author of The Marriage-Go-Round and director of John Hopkins’ Population Center. But the more transitions a child endures, the worse off he or she typically is, Cherlin said.

“Dad also helps with impulse control and memory and enhances a child’s ability to respond effectively to new or ambiguous situations, for boys and girls,” said Warren Farrell, author of Father and Child Reunion. Children who are close to their fathers tend to achieve more academically, while kids with absent fathers are more likely to drop out. Fathers are the biggest factor in preventing drug use, Farrell said.

The time a father spends with his child predicts how empathetic a child will become, according to a proposal for a White House Council on Boys and Men.

Children who lack contact with fathers are more likely to be treated for emotional or behavioral problems. Girls with absent or indifferent fathers are more prone to hyperactivity.

When fathers are involved, girls are less likely to become pregnant as teens and boys are less likely to become teen fathers.

Simply improving the job market for young adults, especially men, would do wonders to stabilize families—particularly those just starting out, Cherlin said. Experts have been surprised by the real drop in divorce among the college-educated, who still can get good jobs. He said young people need more job training opportunities and apprenticeships, especially if they’re not college-bound. Making sure tax policy doesn’t discourage marriage and providing a modest earned income tax credit for disadvantaged childless young adults would also encourage formation of stable relationships, he added.

“I didn’t have a dad in the house,” President Obama said as he announced the My Brother’s Keeper initiative to help young black males. “And I was angry about it, even though I didn’t necessarily realize it at the time. I made bad choices. I got high without always thinking about the harm that it could do. I didn’t always take school as seriously as I should have. I made excuses. Sometimes I sold myself short.”

‘Smart pill’ doesn’t improve schoolwork

The “smart pill” isn’t so smartreports Nature. ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) meds improve classroom behavior for the first year or so, but do little for academic achievement, according to “a growing body of evidence.”  

In the early 1990s, the MTA study began following four groups of elementary children with ADHD. They received medication, behavior therapy, medication and therapy or whatever care they had already been receiving.

After 14 months, the medicated groups showed better control of ADHD.  The drugs/therapy group had higher grades, but the regular care group was second best. And the gains didn’t last.

By three years in, the four groups had become indistinguishable on every measure. Treatment conferred no lasting benefit in terms of grades, test scores or social adjustment. Eight years later, it was the same story. 

. . . A 2013 review of randomized controlled trials longer than 12 months similarly concluded that there is scant evidence for improvements in ADHD symptoms or academic performance lasting much beyond a year.

A few studies show long-term gains in academic performance, but the boost is small and fades over time.

Single-sex schooling has tiny (or no) benefits

Single-sex schooling has very small benefits, according to a meta-analysis of 184 studies representing 1.6 million students in K-12 across 21 nations. Because U.S. students aren’t randomly assigned to single-sex classes, it’s hard to find good control groups here, notes cognitive scientist Dan Willingham.

In controlled studies, there were statistically reliably, but numerically quite modest positive effects of single-sex classrooms for both boys and girls in mathematics achievement, science achievement, and verbal achievement. Girls showed an edge in single-sex classes for math attitude, science achievement, and overall academic achievement, but again, the gains were modest. If one restricts the analysis to U.S. students, virtually all of these small effects disappear.

There was no effect for attitudes towards school, gender stereotyping, educational aspirations, self-concept, interpersonal relationships, or body image.

For any one child, single-sex schooling might be helpful, writes Willingham. Overall, not so much.